London's calling from Largo's Rose & Crown

click to enlarge GET BENT WITH BECKHAM: As an English sports - bar, the tavern understands its audience. Just - don't ask for Tennent's. - VALERIE MURPHY
GET BENT WITH BECKHAM: As an English sports bar, the tavern understands its audience. Just don't ask for Tennent's.

OK, I'll get this little detail over with right up front. The entryway of the Rose & Crown is graced with a large sketch portrait of Princess Di. What can I say? She is the "English rose." Drifting in to the main room — toward the bar, of course — one finds a ridiculously enormous tribute to the Union Jack. The flag stands about 8 feet tall and traverses the appropriately proportional length of the tavern's wall, spelling out the Rose & Crown's allegiance in a way that all the Manchester United banners in the British Commonwealth can't. These people are utterly, unapologetically English. On an average night, enough limey accents float about the place to make you think you've crossed the pond, and good luck getting a chair on an evening the giant TV screen in the corner beams in a "football" or rugby match featuring an English team. I imagine last fall's Rugby World Cup finals turned the Rose & Crown into a madhouse. I shudder to think what happens during cricket season.

A plethora of team banners (Go Dundee United!), classic Guinness posters and carefully framed football uniforms round out the restaurant's golden, wood-paneled décor. The menu matches the venue to a (spot of) T, featuring pub food and English specialties that belie the idea that "British cuisine" is an oxymoron. At Rose & Crown, it's a comfortable delight.

As a sports bar, the tavern understands its audience. It features a host of English and Irish beers on tap: Newcastle, Guinness, Bass, Harp, Boddington's (various prices, Newcastle is $4/pint). The list goes on and on (and the bartender can't stop apologizing for the fact that the restaurant's distributor has ceased carrying the classic Scottish bitter Tennent's). The menu includes a variety of common finger foods, from chicken wings (20 for $9) to jalapeño poppers ($4). If you are looking for food with a bit more national flavor, try the sausage rolls ($5.25), a British take on pigs-in-a-blanket. The English-style sausages come baked in delicious, fluffy pastry with a side of mustard-tinged mayonnaise. A more unusual dish, the "Scotch egg" ($4.25) is a hard-boiled egg surrounded by flavorful sausage meat, dipped in breadcrumbs and deep-fried. The egg is then sliced into heart attack-inducing quarters and served piping hot with more of that mustard sauce. Though the eggy appetizer looked a bit peculiar, it tasted yummy, and I found it a perfect accompaniment to all of that bending by Beckham.

Graduating to full-fledged meals, I sampled a cup of Rose & Crown's excellent beef barley soup ($2.50/ cup, $3/bowl). A regular "soup of the day," the richly flavored broth possessed hints of smoke and wine, along with chunks of meat, veggies and plenty of grain. I was very impressed by the soup (as was my dining companion, who stole spoonfuls right out of my bowl), and began to wonder if the simple tavern menu concealed some truly quality food.

I stuck mainly to the English specialties on the menu, and every single one proved a genuine treat. The heartwarming shepherd's pie ($7.50), my favorite, had another rich, meaty broth, this one with ground beef mixed with peas, carrots and onions. It was served casserole-style and topped with a bubbling scoop of mashed potatoes and melted cheese. A close cousin, the chef's pie ($7.95) differed only in the buttery pastry topping that replaced the mashed potatoes. Whether you prefer potatoes or flaky crust, it's the filling in these pies that makes the real difference, and these are hearty with an abundance of meat and vegetable chunks. Though perhaps more in keeping with a winter dinner, these pies definitely made me forget we were in the middle of a late-spring cold snap. Diners seated at the semicircular bar are prevented from spilling steaming spoonfuls of the delicious pie into their laps with specially designed trays that fit not only into measured spots at the bar, but also feature carved frameworks for each individual casserole dish.

I also tried the fried fish and chips. Though occasionally the restaurant has grouper or snapper specials cooked in this traditionally English fashion, I tried the menu's cod version ($8.95, senior portion for $6.95). The mountain of moist, piping-hot whitefish arrived thoroughly battered in a flaky, golden brown coating over foothills of freshly fried chips. It's not a dish for the cholesterol-conscious, but I had a ball making my fingers sticky with well-deserved grease and treating my taste buds to the guilty pleasure of phenomenal fried fish. The tables at Rose & Crown come stocked with a bottle of malt vinegar to sprinkle on the fish, proof that this is a favorite dish of restaurant regulars — with good reason.

Another pleasant surprise was the chicken curry ($7.95), showing that the restaurant can pull off even nouveau British favorites. Though served over a scoop of dry, rather flavorless rice, it was obvious that the star of this particular dish was the sauce. The thick, fragrant curry topped simple broiled chicken pieces and included a garnish of raw tomatoes and bell peppers (capsicums, for the Brits) that provided a necessary cool addition to the fiery flavor of the sauce. Though relatively plain in presentation, the taste was anything but. Complex combinations of spices made this piquant dish into a homey, yet satisfying meal that proved Rose & Crown is more than just meat and potatoes.

For dessert, I tried a decent rice pudding ($2.95) and a rather disappointing and dry cheesecake ($4.50). The rice pudding, I was informed by a cheery bar maid, is homegrown; the cheesecake (fortunately) is not. Though I wasn't too impressed with the dessert selection, I gather it's a rare thing for people to make it through the hearty main courses and still have room for more. As it was, we went home with bits of leftover curry and shepherd's pie.

Adding to the cozy atmosphere and delicious food, the pub also specializes in friendly staff. Even a newcomer soon feels like one of the regular diners who trade barbs back and forth between Yankee and Queen's subject. When certain clients arrive, the savvy bartenders immediately pull a pint of their favorite brew. Watching them, I began to wonder if their quick familiarity might endanger my food-critic anonymity. But lucky is the diner who gets an automatic Newcastle when they step through the door.

Though simple, inexpensive and completely lacking in frills, the quality of this British pub stands among the finest of its genre, and is utterly worthy of the high planet rating. I think even her Majesty would approve.

Diana Peterfreund can be reached at [email protected]. Planet food critics dine anonymously and the Planet pays for their meals. Restaurants chosen for review are not related to advertising.

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